Fighting for secularism among London's Bengalis

Submitted by Matthew on 8 January, 2014 - 12:54

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, an activist with the Nirmul Committee (International Forum for Secular Bangladesh), based in East London, spoke to Solidarity about the conflicts between secularists and Islamists in Bengali communities.


The issues facing Bengali people are the same social issues faced by any other community, including the white working class, living in a deprived inner-city area. Bengalis suffer from high unemployment, underachievement in education, bad health, and overcrowded housing conditions.

The political landscape of the Bengali community in London’s East End can be seen in different time phases, beginning with localised welfare politics in the 60s and 70s, politics connected to the Bangladeshi national independence movement in 1971, political mobilisation of second-generation Bengali community activists (around 1978), which involved anti-racist politics, community representation, and moves into mainstream politics. Now there’s a connection to global politics, and the rise of Islamism

The importance of religion in people’s lives increased throughout the late 1990s. This was partly due to the New Labour government’s attitude to “faith groups” and their inclusion in its agenda.

In addition, after 11 September 2001, the SWP-led Stop the War Coalition brought together a number of organisations, including the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The anti-war movement mobilised thousands of Muslims, including young Muslims. This was the first time that third-generation Muslims were taking part in global political campaigns.

But secularist and left-leaning Bengali organisations failed to take any lead or engage with the community’s own young people. The Islamists found this vacuum an opportunity to claim that they were speaking on behalf of the community.

MAB was led by Middle Eastern Muslims, whereas the Muslim Council of Britain was South Asian, but both are linked to Islamists. The SWP gave them a boost.

The decision to focus on Islamist organisations, instead of drawing support from smaller secular organisations, had a serious adverse affect on the Bengali community. Some community activists argue that it helped create a schism within the community, and the Islamists gained further ground, both ideologically and organisationally.

At the local level, in the East End, some secular social organisations objected to the involvement of Islamists in the local anti-war movement, but in vain. Some refrained from joining the movement, despite their outright opposition to the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain, but campaigned from their own platform against the war.

There is not much engagement with young people by the secularist and left-leaning organisations. The UK Bengali community is very much polarised, most obviously along the lines of secularism versus Islamism.

The political struggle between two camps is being fought out every day throughout the UK in Bengali communities. The Bengali left is divided, and cannot be unified, but on the question of secularism some left groups are working together.

Central and local government funding had previously resourced community organisations led by secular activists. That’s been cut as the Islamists have gained the upper hand, and, being the loudest and best-organised, were appeased by local councils. Much of the funding from the central government “Prevent” project [part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy] has gone, via local councils, to groups associated with Islamists. The Islamists in Tower Hamlets are in a very cosy relationship with Christian and other faith leaders, as well as local unions and the SWP.

Religion is definitely a growing force in the community. The Islamists are very strong, as they are very well-funded and financially self-reliant. They have strong organisational structures with paid staff/cadres. By contrast, the secularists are disorganised and unable to challenge the Islamists.

The racism Bengalis face today cannot be compared to what the community faced from the 1970s-1990s. That was a more brutal and violent racism. Today, Bengalis, like any other Black community, may face institutional racism. Focusing on “Islam” or “Muslims” has perhaps given another angle for racists to discriminate against anyone who is different from them. What we are dealing with here is prejudice, and how it can manifest as overt racism.

We do not use the term “Islamophobia”. Calling things “Islamophobic” is a defence card used by Islamists whenever they are criticised.

We can fight racism today by collectively taking on the challenge, and working in partnerships just as we did from the 70s to the 90s.

The best thing leftists and secularists outside the community can do to help us is supporting initiatives on the ground by Bengali secularists and leftists. There are groups from a variety of different backgrounds and traditions, many of which are linked to organisations in Bangladeshi itself, which have members and activities in Britain.

These include the ICT Support Forum, Gonojagoron Moncho, Nirmul Committee, Awami League, Muktijoddha Sangsad, Bangladesh Workers Party, Bangladesh Socialist Party, Communist Party of Bangladesh, National Socialist Party of Bangladesh, and the National Awami Party, amongst others.

They are campaigning on a daily basis — holding demos, meetings, seminars, processions, vigils, and other activities. They would appreciate attendance at their events, solidarity speeches, and support.

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